Twenty-five years ago, many gays and lesbians were still closeted at work, and at home. But they were on the cusp of a landmark victory, one that would distinguish Massachusetts as a gay rights leader.
Becoming only the second state to pass a law protecting the employment and other rights of gays and lesbians was not only a result of earnest appeals to lawmakers, however. It was a 17-year battle that was at times nasty, personal, and full of political gamesmanship, according to those who lived it.
“This was all about politics, not about a wholesale conversion to fairness,” said Senator Michael Barrett, the bill’s primary sponsor.
On Nov. 15, 1989, Governor Michael S. Dukakis signed a bill banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in housing, employment, credit, and access to restaurants and other businesses.
And while the long, bitter fight over a non-discrimination measure seems hard to imagine today, many of the tactics used by gay rights activists at the time are not dissimilar to those employed by advocates for gay marriage years later.
Back then, gay advocates in Massachusetts wanted to add just two words: “sexual orientation,” to the state law that already prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender, religion, or ancestry. Though the bill had been introduced since the early 1970s, it passed for the first time in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1983.
Gay rights supporters were lobbying at a time when most state legislators thought they did not know any gay people. Many gays and lesbians were closeted, especially in the workplace. The AIDS crisis was on the minds of a lot of Americans during the mid-1980s, as was a scandal in Massachusetts over the placement of foster children with gay couples. The Catholic Church, which was ardently opposed to the bill, was a major influence on many legislators.
A crucial tool for gay advocates was convincing legislators that they could think gay people were sinners but also think they should not lose their jobs because of that.
“When legislators came to realize they could think both ways, that freed up a lot of legislators to vote with us,” said Arline Isaacson, one of the most influential gay rights lobbyists. “That was one of the top issues for them. Am I being asked to vote to approve of homosexuality?”
In the six years between the first time the House approved the measure and the crucial Senate vote in 1989, Isaacson, cochair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, got to know the legislators in ways she did not expect.
“They needed to tell me that they were molested when they were a kid, or someone tried to,” she said. “They would come out to me about family members who are gay, they would talk about their political supporters, their own views of life and of the world. I got to know these people really, really well, and form very close relationships in no small part because we had extraordinarily intimate conversations.”
Gay advocates also had to combat scare tactics from their opponents.
In March 1989, Representative Francis Woodward urged his House colleagues to read a book that depicted gays as promiscuous and a threat to children. “Are Gay Rights Right,” offered graphic depictions of homosexual acts, and claimed that one-fifth of gay people had had sex with animals.
Former senator David Locke, a chief opponent to the bill, sent his staff out to buy gay pornography, and pass it around as an example of the gay lifestyle, according to Isaacson. Isaacson got wind of this, and had her allies go buy straight porn to circulate. The message was: The racy photos were not representative of the lives of either gay or straight people.
Reached this week at his law office, Locke, 87, said he does not remember that episode, but also said that does not mean it didn’t happen.
In 1988, when the fight looked bleak for gay rights supporters, they chained themselves to one another in the Senate gallery and had to be forcibly removed by guards, leading to the arrest of 14 demonstrators. That did not win them friends in the Senate.
And even when there were enough votes in the Senate to pass it, Senate leadership, led by President William M. Bulger, used parliamentary rules to delay the bill from coming to a vote.
“There was no doubting it was the wish of the body, and we couldn’t get it to a vote,” said Barrett, who represented Cambridge at the time.
The measure finally passed in the Senate due to a number of factors: a weariness among legislators who had debated the bill for years, a vitriol on the part of gay rights opponents that turned senators off, a recognition that public opinion was changing, and the idea that after years of intense lobbying, perhaps the bill should be granted a vote on the merits.
Immediately after the Senate passed the bill, gay rights opponents wanted to put the issue on the ballot, but their efforts failed in court.
Though Wisconsin was the first to enact such a law, many others followed Massachusetts’ lead.
“Massachusetts really seemed to break the floodgates for a lot of states to be able to pass theirs,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director at Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights organization.
But while California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Vermont all enacted civil rights for gays and lesbians in the early 1990s, 29 states still have no such laws.
Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation remains a concern in Massachusetts, though it is not at the top of the list. When complaints filed with the Massachusetts Commission on Discrimination in 2013 were categorized, only 2.2 percent fell under sexual orientation, falling far behind those filed because of a disability or race.
In the last quarter-century, attitudes about gays and lesbians have changed dramatically, Locke acknowledged.
He said that he could not remember how he voted — the record shows he voted against it — but that in 1989, senators were aware times were changing.
“I think it was the first salvo in the movement to treat gay rights as equal to any other rights,” he said.